Teacher and support staff unions received $22-million from Ontario's Liberal government with "no strings attached," part of a larger payment for professional development, the province's Auditor-General said Wednesday.
Bonnie Lysyk said the province has given education unions about $80.5-million since 2000 to subsidize further training for members, of which $22-million was disbursed in 2006 "as unconditional grants with no accountability or control provisions."
Further, four teachers and support-staff unions were handed $3.8-million from the Liberals to cover their costs for three rounds of bargaining between 2008 and 2015, which Ms. Lysyk characterized as "rare." The government does not reimburse any other public-sector unions for negotiations.
Ms. Lysyk said the government offered to cover the bargaining costs in the first two rounds so it could entice unions to negotiate at a provincial table. Bargaining centrally was a voluntary process; most unions bargained with school boards. In 2014, that changed: Unions were legally required to bargain centrally, but there was an expectation that the government would continue to fund their bargaining costs, Ms. Lysyk said.
The Auditor-General's report on government payments to teachers' unions, released Wednesday, comes after The Globe and Mail uncovered last fall that the Liberals had made secret payments to cover the cost of bargaining. All three parties on a legislative committee voted unanimously to have the Auditor-General investigate whether the payments were a good use of tax dollars.
Ms. Lysyk told reporters that her office was surprised by the amount of money the government gave education unions for training.
"The amount of money that's being provided for [professional development] in Ontario is more than what we're seeing across Canada," she said. "Obviously, this is a bigger province, but we still find that it was unusually high."
Professional development is usually done through employers – school boards – but the unions in Ontario also have "well-established" departments that provide valuable training, Education Minister Liz Sandals said. She said the $22-million subsidy that was not accounted for in 2006 was unacceptable, but the reporting structure has since been strengthened.
"The professional-development money that has flowed to the unions was used for professional development. The money related to bargaining was used for bargaining expenses. It was not used for any other purpose," she told reporters. "They did with the money what they were required to do."
Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, echoed that sentiment and said the unions are "much more equipped" than local school boards to conduct professional development across the province.
But Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod questioned the millions in payments for bargaining and training. She said the money could have been used to fund school repairs or enhance special education programs, but has instead been spent in some cases "without receipts or without a true picture of the classroom benefit."
The payments to the teachers' unions for bargaining have been controversial. After initially saying it did not see the unions' receipts to verify bargaining expenses, the Liberals said they would seek an accounting.
The payments included $2.5-million the province gave to three teachers' unions to support them through the most recent round of bargaining and get them to sign labour deals. The government handed $1-million each to the OSSTF and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, plus $500,000 to the smaller Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens.
Ms. Sandals has justified the payments, saying they were necessary to compensate the unions for the increased costs of bargaining, which became longer and more complicated after the Liberals put a two-step system in place. Larger matters such as salaries were negotiated between the government and central unions, while smaller issues were settled between individual school boards and union locals.
The government reached central deals with all the education unions in the fall, but not before a tough round of negotiations during which the public high school teachers' union held strikes in the Toronto area and in Northern Ontario, and the government legislated the teachers back to work.
There are still close 93 local unions out of 473 that have not yet reached deals, including Toronto's public high school teachers. The current contracts are for a three-year period, and are set to expire at the end of the August, 2017.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Ontario has given education unions about $22.5-million for bargaining costs that were not accounted for. In fact, that amount was given as subsidies for professional development. This digital version has been corrected.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that there are still 280 local unions out of 473 that have not yet reached deals. In fact, the number is 93 of 473. This digital version has been corrected.